Scripps National Spelling Bee: Live Updates

The Scripps National Spelling Bee has been part of the family lore since before Advaith Balakrishnan was born.

Advaith, a 13-year-old from Hinsdale, Ill., is the same age as when his father, Balu Natarajan, became the first child of immigrants to win the Scripps competition in 1985. Decades later, Atman, Advaith’s older brother, made it to the national bee twice.

Now, it’s Advaith’s turn to walk onto the stage. In an interview, he said he was inspired by the experiences of his family, and that they were supportive of his dream of winning: quizzing him on words, scheduling time to study, and advising him on how to handle the inevitable nerves.

“They keep me motivated to keep spelling because I’m really striving for that trophy and for that win,” he said. The work is time consuming. He wakes at 4 am to study for a few hours before school and devotes many hours on weekends.

Mr. Natarajan, now 50, said that after winning the Bee in 1985, his life was changed. He recalled the fanfare, a blitz of media appearances, and a warm embrace from the South Asian community. But Mr. Natarajan, now a sports medicine doctor, said he hadn’t really talked about spelling with his sons — until the day his eldest, on seeing a photo of his father beaming and hefting a trophy, became curious about it.

Spelling fervor began anew in the family, and Mr. Natarajan said his sons blazed their own trails to the Bee. The competition is much more intense and the studying more rigorous than during his time, he said.

“These are opportunities one can only dream of,” he added. “We know the spelling bee gets harder every year; we are going to give it our best shot. We are really proud.”

For many contestants, the journey to becoming an elite speller involves the entire family.

Rex Dover’s interest in spelling was sparked four years ago, when his older brother, James, now 15, began competing in local contests. After James won his first school spelling bee, Rex said he started thinking he’d like to win one too.

“I’ve always been very competitive so I just kind of want to win,” said Rex, 13, of Belmont, NC “I think I’m catching up to him.”

James later competed at the national bee in 2019 and 2021.

Spelling has become a source of fun for the entire family, said his mother, Amy Dover, who quizzes Rex on words while he shoots hoops. Playing word games, completing crossword puzzles, learning quirky word categories like all of the Italian pastas, and even participating in spelling bees have become family pastimes, she said. In 2019, Ms. Dover, 46, won her local library’s spelling bee with the word “abecedarian,” a term she had learned from her son James.

“So when the word got called, his eyes met mine in the audience, and we smiled. I knew the word right away,” Ms. Dover said. (It means arranged alphabetically, relating to the alphabet, or rudimentary.)

Some young spellers have enlisted professional help. Cole Shafer-Ray, 20, draws on his experience as a three-time Bee participant and a runner-up in 2015 to coach students, including last year’s winner, Zaila Avant-garde. This year, he’s helping a roster of 10 spellers.

Through coaching, he said, he can continue nurturing his love for spelling and mentor others.

“Being at the Scripps National Spelling Bee is a lifetime achievement no matter what,” said Mr. Shafer-Ray, a rising junior at Yale University. “Just being there is a huge, huge thing you carry with for your whole life.”

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